Australia’s Golden Girl Betty Cuthbert only athlete with Golds in sprints treble | Sunday Observer

Australia’s Golden Girl Betty Cuthbert only athlete with Golds in sprints treble

21 November, 2021
From left: Fleur Mellor, Norma Croker, Betty Cuthbert and Shirley Strickland, the Australian women’s 4x100m team
From left: Fleur Mellor, Norma Croker, Betty Cuthbert and Shirley Strickland, the Australian women’s 4x100m team

Elizabeth Alyse Cuthbert, AC, MBE was an Australian athlete and a four-time Summer Olympic champion. In the 125-year history of the Summer Olympic Games, she is the only Olympian, male or female, to have won a gold medal in all sprint events: 100m, 200m and 400m. She was nicknamed Australia’s “Golden Girl” of the track. During her career, she set world records for 60m, 100 yards, 200m, 220 yards and 440 yards. Cuthbert also contributed to Australian relay teams competing in 4x100m, 4x110 yards, 4x200m and 4x220 yards. Cuthbert had a distinctive running style, with a high knee lift.

Cuthbert was born to Leslie and Marion alongside her nonidentical twin sister, Marie ‘Midge.’ She also had another sister, Jean and a brother, John. According to Midge, the twins were not alike, but very special to each other. The daughter of nursery owners, Cuthbert was born in Merrylands, New South Wales and grew up in the Sydney suburb of Ermington, where she attended Ermington Public School. Of her upbringing, Cuthbert stated “My parents always encouraged me and I had a good home life. We were always taught to respect things and other people.”

Melbourne 1956 Summer Olympics

The evolution towards Melbourne 1956 gold medals started when Cuthbert was just eight and living in Ermington near Parramatta. She was persuaded to join the Western Suburbs Athletic Club by June Ferguson, a teacher at her school and coach at the club.

Cuthbert’s mother, Marion attended church and sent her four children to Sunday school. As a teenager, Cuthbert attended Parramatta Home Science School. She left school at the age of 16 to work in the family nursery.

Rather than changing Cuthbert’s natural style, her coach made it work better by concentrating on driving forward and getting a better start. June also worked on her concentration and used to say, “if you had time to think over 100yds you weren’t going fast enough”. She was never taught a finish, in the belief that she should be in full flight when breaking the tape, therefore she would aim for a yard beyond the tape before slowing down.

On September 16, 1956, in a race that she was persuaded by her mother to contest, Cuthbert shocked herself and June by breaking the world 200m record with a time of 23.2 secs. But so, unconfident was she that she would be selected into the Olympic team, she bought tickets to attend the Games as a spectator.

At the Olympic trials the following month, Cuthbert showed just how perfectly her preparation had been, peaking to win both 100m and the 200m. A week later she was chosen for the team, and was able to give the tickets she had bought to her brother John. Cuthbert became a national hero, sprinting down the red-brick track at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in Australia’s first-ever Olympic Games.

When she burst from the blocks, Cuthbert, a shy 18-year-old with golden hair, was little known in the world of elite sprinters. Cuthbert first reached the finals of the 100m, setting an Olympic record of 11.4 secs in her heat. In the final, with her mouth agape, Cuthbert surged down the track to win in 11.5 secs, securing Australia’s first gold medal of the Olympic Games.

Later in the week, Cuthbert contested 200m. Having recently set the world record in the distance and having just won 100m, she was full of confidence. She got away fast, clearing the way to another gold medal and equalling Marjorie Jackson’s Olympic record of 23.4 secs.

Australia was favourite for 4x100m relay and the final team consisted of Cuthbert, Shirley Strickland, Fleur Mellor, and Norma Croker. They performed magnificently, creating a new world record of 44.9 secs in the heat, then broke the record again to win the final from Great Britain in 44.5 secs.

“All I could say was ‘yes’ and ‘no’ when anybody interviewed me,” she recalled in a 2004 interview with The Herald Sun. “Being young and shy never held me back. It spurred me on. Nervousness was always a good sign. Adrenaline runs through your body.”

Australia’s female athletes were the sensations of the track at the 1956 Olympic Games. Of the four athletes who won 4x100m relay, besides Betty Cuthbert, her team-mates Shirley Strickland won gold in 80m hurdles. There were only four women’s track events in the Melbourne Olympics and the Australian women took gold in everyone.

The 4x100m relay was one of the most exciting of the women’s track events, with world records set in one of the two heats and the final. Nine countries competed, and four ran under the previous world-record time. In the final, Australia trailed Great Britain until the last baton change, when Cuthbert surged to the lead. Australia set a new world record of 44.5 seconds, with Great Britain running second and the United States third.

With this victory Cuthbert became the first Australian triple gold medalist in a single Olympics. The 18-year was instantly acclaimed as a national heroine by the home Australian crowd, and was nicknamed the “Golden Girl.”

The medals used in Melbourne were the standard design first used at the Amsterdam Games in 1928. They were not placed around the athletes’ necks at the medal ceremony as they are now – instead they were presented in cream velvet-lined cases.

Rome 1960 Summer Olympics

In the lead-up to Rome 1960 Summer Olympics, Cuthbert set a world 220 yards and 200m record of 23.2 secs in winning the Australian championships. At the Rome 1960 Olympics, she failed to survive the second round of the 100m due to a hamstring injury and withdrew from the 200m, subsequently retiring from athletics for 18 months.

And then everything changed in one night in 1962. As she recounted it, she was trying to sleep when she heard a voice telling her to run again. “I lay awake wondering what to do,” she told The Daily Telegraph of Sydney in 2000. “The voice came back again and again. Finally, I said, ‘O.K., you win. I’ll run again.’ As soon as I said that, this wonderful feeling came right through my body, and I was mentally keen to want to do something again.”

She believed it was the voice of God urging her on. Physically renewed and buoyed by her Christian faith, she returned for her final gold medal in 400m at the Tokyo 1964 Games, her last race. Then came the personal battles beyond the track world that endeared her among Australians through the rest of her life.

She took advice from June Ferguson again, who suggested she try the 400m. She spent some time with Percy Cerutty at Portsea, improving her endurance, then began an intensive training program under Ferguson’s guidance. She competed at the 1962 Perth British Empire and Commonwealth Games, winning two silver medals, in 220yds and 4x110yds relay.

Cuthbert broke two 440yds world records in March 1963, but was hampered in the 1963/64 season by an injury to her right foot. She was beaten at the 1964 national championships but finally won at the distance at the Olympic fundraising carnival.

Tokyo 1964 Summer Olympics

She concentrated on 400m and competed in the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, when it was on the Olympic program for women for the first time. Cuthbert ran just well enough in the heat of the 400m to qualify for the semi-finals. In the draw for the final, she received the lane she wanted, number two, with most of her opposition across the track outside her.

She started explosively, passing her Australian teammate Judy Amoore (Pollock). Over the last 100m, she drew on all her reserves, and all her sprinting capacity winning the race in 52.01 seconds in what she called “the only perfect race of my life.” Cuthbert is the only Olympic sprinter, man or woman, to have won gold medals in the 100m, 200m, and 400m.

Incredible impact in retirement

Five years after her retirement, she was found to have multiple sclerosis, a debilitating disease in which the body’s immune system eats away at the protective sheaths that cover the nerves. She ultimately needed a wheelchair, but she became an inspirational figure, helping others cope with the illness and raising money for research.

“I know people listen to me because they know what I used to do before - run,” The Australian Associated Press quoted her as saying afterward. “If they can pick up some encouragement, it might help them. It helps me, too.”

Cuthbert had suffered from multiple sclerosis from 1969 and in 2002 had a severe brain hemorrhage. She stated that, despite her MS, she never once asked God ‘Why me?’ and instead “knew that God wanted her to use it to help other people.” She felt compelled to publicly declare her faith in Jesus. From then on, Cuthbert tried to share the good news of Jesus with as many people as possible.

She did, however, initially want to be healed of her MS, and someone encouraged her to go to church where she could be healed. She claimed she went, looking for healing, instead of the Healer. In her own words: “I found out about the healer, and then I couldn’t care less about the healing. That’s the best thing. I get so much joy out of it and I want to tell other people about it. I think that’s why I was meant to come back to the Olympics in 1964 because now I’m well known and it helps me to tell people about Jesus.”

Following her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis, Cuthbert became a dedicated advocate for the disease and was an important player in the creation of MS Research Australia, attending the organization’s 2004 inauguration alongside then Prime Minister John Howard.

She was a tireless campaigner for national awareness of the disease and following her death in 2017, was credited by CEO of MS Research Australia, Dr. Matthew Miles, as having had an incredible impact on Australia’s recognition and understanding of MS.

Sydney 2000 Summer Olympics

In 1991, Cuthbert left her home state, New South Wales, for Western Australia, where she settled in Mandurah.

When the Olympics returned to Australia with the Sydney Games in 2000, Cuthbert was in the public eye once more. She carried the torch around the track in the opening ceremony, her wheelchair pushed by her countrywoman Raelene Boyle, a three-time Olympic silver medalist in the sprints.

The torch was ultimately passed to the Aboriginal sprinter Cathy Freeman, who lit the cauldron. Freeman went on to win the women’s 400 meters, 36 years after Cuthbert had captured that event in Tokyo.

In the weeks that followed the Sydney Games, Cuthbert reveled in the adulation she had received there. “To hear the roar of the crowd when I came out, I still get goose bumps when I think about it now,” she told The Herald Sun. “The reception was so loud and so loving.”

Honours and Awards

1956 – ABC Sportsman of the Year; 1960 – Captain Women of the Rome Olympic team; 1964 – World Trophy for Australasia (Helms Award); 1965 – Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE); 1978 – 1980, First female Trustee of the Sydney Cricket and Sports Ground Trust; 1983 – Olympic Order (Silver); 1984 – Member of the Order of Australia (AM); 1985 – Inaugural inductee to the Sport Australia Hall of Fame; 1992 – the State Transit Authority of New South Wales named a River Cat ferry after Cuthbert; 1994 – Sport Australia Hall of Fame Legend; 1998 – Named a National Living Treasure; 2000 – Inaugural inductee of the Athletics Australia Hall of Fame; 2000 – Australian Sports Medal; 2000 – Life Member of the Sydney Cricket and Sports Ground Trust; 2001 – Inducted to the Sydney Cricket and Sports Ground Trust Walk of Honour; 2001 – Victorian Honour Roll of Women; 2003 – Statue unveiled outside at the Melbourne Cricket Ground; 2007 – NSW Hall of Champions Legend; 2010 – Betty Cuthbert had a rose named after her; 2012 – Inaugural inductee of the IAAF Hall of Fame; 2017 – Australian Women’s Health Sport Awards Hall of Fame; 2018 – A bronze sculpture of Cuthbert was unveiled at the Sydney Cricket Ground; Betty Cuthbert Grandstand at Sydney Olympic Park Athletic Centre; 2018 – Made a Companion of the Order of Australia.

Death and Legacy

Cuthbert died in 2017, aged 79, in Mandurah.

At the time of her death, she was the youngest ever 200m gold medalist in Olympic history. Cuthbert never married or had children.

The day after her death, there was a minute’s silence before the start of competition at the 2017 World Athletics Championships in London, and Australian athletes were granted permission by the International Association of Athletics Federations to wear black armbands in competition. Cuthbert was the only Australian among the 10 inaugural inductees to the IAAF Hall of Fame in 2012.

There were many tributes to Cuthbert’s career and life from significant Australians: Cathy Freeman – “Betty is an inspiration and her story will continue to inspire Australian athletes for generations to come. I’m so happy I got to meet such a tremendous and gracious role model, and Olympic champion.”; Marlene Matthews – “I have never met anyone that had such great faith and determination. It was this faith that kept her going for so long and through the most difficult times.”; John Coates: Betty battled her illness for many years and showed tremendous courage, but more importantly she always managed to smile. Betty was a member of a unique band of athletes who inspired thousands of Australians; Malcolm Turnbull: Rest in Peace Betty Cuthbert – an inspiration and a champion on and off the track; Bill Shorten: Rest in peace Betty Cuthbert, forever a golden girl.

Cuthbert’s funeral was held on August 16, 2017 in Mandurah and her body was cremated at Fremantle Cemetery. Several hundred were present, including: Margaret Court, Raelene Boyle, and Marjorie Jackson. Dawn Fraser (whom Cuthbert handed the Olympic Torch to during the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics) gave a speech. Her twin sister, Midge, lit a candle of remembrance; and niece and nephew, Louise and Peter, also gave speeches.

A public memorial service for Cuthbert was held on August 21, 2017, at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Tributes were led by broadcaster Alan Jones and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. Also in attendance were former athletes, Norma Fleming and Marlene Matthews.

There are two books on Cuthbert’s life: Golden girl as told to Jim Webster (1966) and Golden girl: an autobiography by Betty Cuthbert (2000).

(The author is the winner of Presidential Awards for Sports and recipient of multiple National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc. He can be reached at [email protected])